Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More About Bob and Other Stories of Omniscience

I think we have a fight on our hands.

And, for the record? I can’t BELIEVE it’s about point of view.

I agree with Bob that most of us learn that the omniscient point of view is meant to be a "God's eye" view. I think, however, the mistake is thinking one is actually meant to take on the part of God (or the Goddess), if you will, and not have any opinion about what's being portrayed in the story you are telling. The omniscient narrator is a narrator and a participant in the story, just as a limited third-person narrator would be. This is not just my opinion.

This definition comes from NYU’s class on English reading & writing. Citation:

Omniscient Point of View:

"The story is told by the author, using the third person, and his knowledge and prerogatives are unlimited. He can interpret the behavior of his characters; he can comment, if he wishes, on the significance of the story he is telling.

It offers a constant danger that the author may come between the reader and the story, or that the continual shifting of viewpoint from character to character may cause a breakdown in coherence or unity. Used skillfully, it enables the author to achieve simultaneous breadth and depth. Unskillfully used, it can destroy the illusion of reality, which the story attempts to create."

The implication here is very obviously that there is a narrator, a commentator—with a personality (likely the author's)—who is telling the story in omniscient point of view. In fact, as said above, the biggest danger is that the story will suffer from "his" intrusion -- that the narrator will be too present.

Again, I will agree that the solution to this is not to pepper one's prose with "I supposed" or "I consider" or other wishy-washy language. It is imperative that the narrative voice make some kind of stand, posit some kind of opinion. That is what narrative voice does. It should, in point of fact, be the expression of the character's opinions, their feeling, and their general take on the scene or whatever.

A Correction!

A big HUGE apology to Mike Resnick for giving him "undue" credit. The Mike I was thinking of was actually Mike Swanwick

Sorry Mr. Resnick... I guess I just think if it's cool, you must have written it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Openings... A Can of Worms?

Now if we all agree hooking the reader is important, how do you do it?

A lot of writing instructors will suggest that you start the story in the middle of THE ACTION. You know, "Twang! The arrow barely missed her head," and such like. That method can be effective, and it's a good thing to try particularly if you feel like your story lacks a certain amount of movement or if you've been having trouble with your pacing.

Not every story needs to start with a literal bang, however.

In science fiction and fantasy, you can also start with an eyeball kick, as William Gibson did in his famous opening for Neuromancer: "The sky was the color of a television set tuned to a dead channel."

Juxtapositions work well too. I'm not sure I can find the exact opening, but Mike Resnick's "Scherzo with Tyrannosaurus" would be a good example of how putting to disparate elements together can grab a reader's attention. Turns out it was downstairs. Here's how it goes: "A keyboardist was playing a selection of Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas, brief pieces one to three minutes long, very complex and refined, while the Hadrosaurus herd streamed by the window."

From the same collection, this alternative from "Mount Olympus" by Ben Bova, "Tomas Rodriguez looked happy as a puppy with an old sock to chew on as he and Fuchida got into their hard suits." What I like about Bova's is that nothing is really happening. It's the turn of phrase that sounds very American South coupled with a term I'm not sure of "hard suits" (space suits? something else?) that catches and holds my attention.

Let's see if there's anything else fun in here (BTW, I'm perusing the SEVENTEENTH ANNUAL YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Gardner Dozois). Okay, here's the beginning of Paul J. McAuley's, "How We Lost the Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen"--"You probably think you know everything about it." A provocative accusation in second-person (you) which jumps out and bites you, personally. This works for me, especially given the title of the story. Something like that could work for you, too, perhaps.

One thing that writing instructors will also tell you, but which I've actually found fairly useful, is that sometimes it's best to leave the beginning to the end. Which is to say, start the story wherever you need to in order to write it all the way to the end, and then, once all is said and typed, go back and revamp your hook so that it's catchier. Also, depending on how you write, you may not know what a story is about until it's over, and really, the beginning paragraph of a short story (or first chapter of the novel) should lay out the main conflict of the main character. It needs to answer the question: What’s at stake here? Who stands to lose the most?

...And Now, Hooking like a Pro

I love the double entendre of that, don't you? Plus, it serves as a fairly good example of how to write an effective opening line, otherwise known as a "hook."

The idea of a hook that it grabs your reader's attention, draws them in, and (fingers crossed) keeps them rapt until the words THE END. Why is it important to do this? Why not just start at the beginning and go?

The reason is because the competition is enormous.

I was walking through the Washington County Library on my way to class last Wednesday and I was struck by the fact that each one of the books I passed represented a person, and not just any person, but a professional writer just like me. Each one of those people managed to jump through the same hoops I did, and, in so many ways, beat the odds and got their book in print.

For every book on the shelf, I imagine there must be hundreds, if perhaps not thousands, of writers who didn’t… or, more positively, haven't YET.

If you're writing for the short story market, you have the same kind of pressure. Asimov's receives something like a thousand submissions a month. I think they run a dozen or more stories, plus you have to factor in all the bigger names than you (and me) who are also taking up valuable real estate.

So, how do you stand out in a crowd like that?

Like a 'ho, ya gotta have a good come-on.

That's a sickeningly apt metaphor, since the opening is a kind of advertisement, a way of letting people know what kind of story they're getting themselves in for. If your opening is dark and serious, then the reader will expect that what follows is also dark and serious.

Monday, February 27, 2006

First, A Reply

I thought I'd reply to Bob's (and to some extent Megan's) comments on my narrative voice post here since my response is likely to be long, meandering and drawn out and, thus, not terribly suited for the narrow comments page.

Bob asks, "What about voice with gravitas? Why are so many writers terrified of sounding serious?"

I don't know that they are, but you're right that there is a trend in fiction right now toward a chatty, first person narrative voice. I suspect part of that is because the target audience (the slacker generation and younger) tends toward sarcasm and meta-fiction in their life and entertainment. Thus, it's an easy way for a writer to establish a rapport with her audience. Plus, I think a lot of writers enjoy the challenge of working with a potentially unreliable narrator. It's fun to try to figure out how to let your readers know the truth about a situation when your narrator is lying to him/herself about it, you know?

But, I think you can have a serious narrative voice. What I was trying to caution new writers about is being careful of the distinction between serious and flat. You can be plenty serious, but still have that view color the way you look at things. A serious narrator will still "notice" things that are important to him/her as they reflect plot or character. (Example: hero is space captain going for job interview. When he walks in the room the thing he might first notice is the cheap veneer on the table... or some other clue that will forward, in many ways, the plot, as it will dictate how he responds to the scene. This can all be described seriously, but I think it still ought to be a filtered by his personality and situation. A flat narration would simply start listing the dimensions of the room, the table, the color of the walls, etc with no regard to how the character might be reacting to any of it.)

I disagree with Bob about omniscient p.o.v., in that I don't see omniscient as lacking a personality or distinct narrative voice. In fact, the omniscient p.o.v. is merely a character outside of the story who can see into other people's heads. A good example of this is almost any sort of mythological or fairy tale like story, in which the narrator basically directs the story to the moral that he or she is trying to make. Sometimes they're _not_ invisible in the text, they might break out with an imperative sentence like, "Imagine!" or a comment directly to the reader, like, "This was before you were born, and so things were different then." A great modern writer who uses omniscient well is Eleanor Arnason.

Certainly, Bob is right when he says that it is possible that pumping up the voice won't help every writer who has been told that their writing is flat. I agree that it's likely something more holistic. However, I have read at least two manuscripts from students of mine who did everything else right, as far as I could tell, but there was still something that felt missing. I spent months mulling over the problem, and finally decided that what I thought the manuscripts needed was a better sense of voice.

But, voice as a concept is no trendier than the idea that a sentence must include a verb.

How voice is presented has changed dramatically over time, but fiction has always had a voice. Why? Because fiction in its primal form was spoken. Stories have always been told by SOMEONE. This doesn't change because they are written down.